ALTERNATIVE FOCUS #11: “’Wish they all could be California boys’: Robert Irwin, Constructing an Artist”

“…Whereas the fact is that each of us is painstakingly educated to this game of art as practitioners. (We shall define a ‘game’ as any activity with a made-up set of rules for determining winners and losers; ‘game’ is herein counterpoised to ‘play,’ free-form activity pursued for its own sake without concern for winning or losing. A good part of the difficulty with the art world today is, of course, that it has made a game out of an activity which is necessarily free play.)”

–Robert Irwin, “Notes Towards a Model,” first published in Whitney Museum of Art’s catalog for its exhibition Robert Irwin (1977); reprinted in Robert Irwin: All the Rules Must Change (Washington DC: Hirshhorn Museum, 2016), 141.


Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1969. Acrylic paint on shaped acrylic, 54” in diameter. Collection Orange County Museum, Newport Beach CA. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kelsey.

I. Hirshhorn Irwin Exhibition: Do 30 Objects a “Major Retrospective” Make?

Going on the basis of media reviews of the Hirshhorn Museum’s 2016 Summer show “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Must Change” (closed Sept. 5) as well as the detailed catalog texts I made my way through, I seem the only observer who saw an eyeball looking back at me through the slit-like horizontal “openings” across the pair of late 60s Untitled “acrylic paint sprayed on arched round acrylic forms” pieces in this exhibition. One greeted us at its entrance, another bid us adieu at its end. For me, that impression said a great deal about the exceedingly self-conscious and viewer-manipulative oeuvre of Robert Irwin (b.1929): generally categorized as one protagonist of the “California Space and Light” movement, and only part of whose artistic development was charted by this “retrospective” (billed as his “first outside CA in 40 years,” as if it had just landed from another planet). Similarly, I must confess one of Irwin’s included paintings, Ocean Park of 1960-61—from among his so-called “pick-up-sticks” series, because they seem composed in similarly “random” fashion as when one throws those giant-toothpick toys on the ground—appears to be an abstracted self-portrait. Its asymmetrical pair of eyes (congealing out of white brushstrokes composing them near the canvas’ top), including eyebrows, “morph” downwards on an ostensible “face” via a series of experimentally inter-crossing paint slashes, to culminate in an orange-blue-gray defined “mouth” undeniably resembling a pair of lips, with further paint slashes in between and below. In other words, not only did this artist thus seem to be indicating he was “defining” himself via his (at that time) painting activity;  but the result of these works’ inclusion make it feel or seem as if he was uncannily present in it, not just via his works’ physically being assembled there.


Robert Irwin, Ocean Park, 1960-61. Oil on canvas, 65 ½ x 65 ½.” Collection of Betsey and Bud Knapp.

However, all of what Irwin considers a major, even the main part of his oeuvre was not present in this show—not even in the form of photographs with wall texts documenting his subsequent non-object production. Those involved: 1) using landscape as a creative medium; and 2) what he calls “site-conditioned” indoor installations, often constructed with scrim (a translucent fabric used in stage sets). Instead, as his Hirshhorn audience, we were presented only with a series of actual art objects dating up to 1970: in chronologically progressing groups, with Irwin demonstrated leaving each type behind in turn, after initially working himself out of the Abstract Expressionism au courant when he began working as an artist; and then finally, with a site-installation specific to this museum. Though the artist emphasizes that even these more-traditional earlier objects as well are “about” or constructed by viewers’ experience of them; while that process may be indeed emphasized, as we will “see” from verbal descriptions in a moment, it is of course difficult to imagine artworks which are in some sense not. It is rather in the “disappearance” trajectory these trace that makes this preoccupation evident.

In its first section (with the entire show remarkably installed in the Hirshhorn’s circular galleries, as this institution has raised installation to an “art of presenting art), futuristic walls are placed to mark caesuras in Irwin’s shifts from one to his next ever-more-evanescent approach. First come the so-called “Hand Held Paintings” (late 50s-1960) which—true to their moniker—are essentially intended to: first, discard the previous Abstract Expressionism emphasis upon larger-then-life “heroic” scale; and second, “invent” another way in which viewers might interact with framed pictures (these canvases 15” to 21” square)—despite their turbulent abstract compositions, in animated “3D” heavy impasto brushwork—intended to be taken into one’s hands to examine. One reviewer complained of their being exhibited in glass cases, though realistically how else that might be, unless a general public would be permitted to literally pick them up; that sort of “enclosure” lent these trivet-size yet seismographic paintings (as if something larger had been compressed) an old-fashioned “cabinet-of-curiosities” feel.


Robert Irwin, Untitled (Hand-Held Painting), 1959-60. Oil on canvas in artist’s frame, 21 x 21 x 1 ¾.” Collection of Adele and Robert Irwin.

What came next can be generalized as a progression in which the canvas in its traditional sense is increasingly called into question as a carrier of specific or apparent (if even only visual) “meaning”: gradually turning instead into a kind of opthalmological eye exam for the cognoscenti. The aforementioned “pick-up stick” works lead, with their seemingly aleatory combinations of thin-slashed applications of color on a contrasting ground; next Irwin switched to a Minimal aesthetic, beginning with vertical canvases whose horizontal stripes are visible because their colors contrast with the canvas’ overall hue. But subsequently two things happened: to begin with, Irwin began using colors that almost did not contrast with that of the “base’s” hue, so that these “interventions” became increasingly difficult to perceive (or “subtler,” as art historical etiquette would have it). Subsequently, these stripes were applied in the same color as the canvas “base” one, being articulated as separate compositional elements only in that they were applied in a rougher palette-knife fashion so as to have “texture,” while the same hue all around them was grasped as “flat.” Obviously, we are heading in a perceptual direction which will require more effort of us to “see” the painting in question; not only must one move around them physically to “get” it; but of course (as the catalog points out) this coloristic manipulation pushes any anticipated distinction between “figure” (stripes) and “ground” into uncertainty.


Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1962-63. Oil on canvas, 83 x 84”. Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1984

In the group of Irwin’s pictures which follow chronologically, first their “figuration” is reduced to centered round fields of tiny dots (applied by hand with a brush, we are reassured) of contrasting colors (cf. lavender and green), which cannot really be seen from much distance but when one moves towards to hone in on their surfaces, at about 4’ they reveal the painterly mechanics behind their aura-like hovering centers. Irwin would then subsequently move to literalize this circular visual effect by switching to round supports for his works, produced by using slightly-domelike acrylic forms, attached to the wall by vertical supports, looking sort of like mushrooms turned sideways. The artist was apparently assisted by automotive mechanics (having been interested in cars himself), with this medium recalling the “hotrods” of that teen-scene period; and it is explained they were sprayed with acrylic, to create what appear horizontal “slits” in their surfaces, whose effect, at least for me, I characterized above. Finally, at the end of this visually exploratory trajectory—in the course of which the artist evidently became more and more dissatisfied with “art-as-object”—we come, as visitors to this exhibition, to two final virtually-transparent or almost invisible artworks. One is a representative pair of the Lucite columns Irwin then began to (I assume, have manufactured), which would usually be termed sculpture but are almost, at least photographed, invisible except for what they might reflect. The ultimate step away from the studio into creating what Irwin presents as “site-conditioned” works of various kinds then began: Irwin worked as “consultant” from 1970 onward, starting to “make himself available” for others to commission works (apparently largely garden or landscaping) or proffer spaces (for installations).


Robert Irwin in his Studio with Lucite column sculptures, 1970.

Having been to the Getty (where there was in fact signage indicating Irwin had created its garden, though his name is not mentioned on that museum’s current website); but not to DIA Beacon (there is a link from their webpage to an undated article by a Katie Mendelson from Garden Design magazine, where Irwin’s landscaping there is compared to how the museum’s massive sculptures are presented indoors); nor to the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas (founded by sculptor Donald Judd, who took over an old army barracks and had artists turn it into a gigantic outdoor homage to Minimalism). There Irwin was given a whole building to work with, which he entirely gutted and restructured; and after having worked on it for 18 years, it was finally opened to the public this past July 23. (The nature of his re-conception of it is fully presented on the Chinati’s website: via floor plans, diagrams and photos from the opening.)  But I can imagine there might be many visitors to this Hirshhorn exhibition who may not have visited those artistic meccas, or perhaps (if less likely) even heard of them; so might it not have made sense or been kinder to give them some idea of what Irwin’s landscaping looks like? Or to have included photographs of at least his most famous scrim pieces in their other museum venues, such as the so-called “stealth” one at MoMA (1970), a whole catalog essay devoted to it—though I do get the point of their being aleatory, and experientially “unique” to each locale?

Instead in conclusion we were confronted only with Irwin’s “geometry-joke” response to the Hirshhorn’s exhibition spaces being curved because it is a circular building: this “move” entitled Square the Circle: where a white flat-stretched piece of scrim (translucent fabric) makes an inside wall “flat” as if the gallery were a traditional square “white cube” exhibition space. It took me a full 10 minutes standing and walking back-and-forth to perceive Irwin’s intervention, fortunately in time to get in line for his lecture (below). Finally I was cued in by the probably-practically-speaking obligatory tape around a door leading to the museum’s inner corridor, that it must be there. Peter Plagens writing in the Wall Street Journal (6/3/16) found it “almost mystically minimal;” yes, I do agree with Holland Cotter, who declared in The New York Times (4/7/16), “art is mutable and conditional,” though I think that is true of all of it. Kristin Capps designated Irwin’s minimal intervention here to be a laudable “pushback” to the overdone “spectacle,” even “an antidote to so much of what is wrong in the contemporary art sphere today” in The City Paper (4/15/16), referencing Hal Foster’s book The Art-Architecture Complex (that must be why this “movie buff” kept waiting for something to be projected on what read out visually as a “screen”); and in fact I evidently remained “unencumbered by even by a critic’s unlimited enthusiasm,” referred to by The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott in his review (4/6/16), who seemed to grasp the aforementioned door as part of the piece, and wished to refrain from a “spoiler alert” so we would not know what to look for. No problem.

It is not I think 10 minutes is too long to search for an artwork premised on being almost not there; but rather the reaction “is that all?” on finding it that bothers me.

II. Construction of an ‘Important Artist’: Controlling your own History

The tall, genial, elder man propped against a wooden stool on the stage of the Hirshhorn Museum’s Ring Auditorium (which was completely packed, as it is the evening of the artist’s exhibition’s opening there on 7 April 2016) is wearing blue jeans and a baseball cap. Juxtaposed against those occupying the first quarter of the room’s rows of seats, evidently reserved for curatorial/managerial staff and trustees as well as supporting patrons—in a context where even representatives of the media are wearing expensive leather coats—the demarcation could not be more striking. A young assistant is at the lectern nearby, poised to prompt Irwin when his memory fails him as he casually extemporaneizes (or seems to be, he is 87): for example supplying some names of the now-famous students whom he taught at UC Irvine (among them Chris Burden and Ed Ruscha); and reading aloud a laudatory media excerpt written by Peter Scheldjahl.

Neither describing this lecture’s mise-en-scene nor any of the queries raised by contemplating Irwin’s retrospective above are intended to dissent his valid status as an important Contemporary artist, but rather to examine the structures and “rituals” by means of which such significance is constructed, then consolidated. To begin with, this figure apparently must wear what is perceived as the clothing of a “creative person” (even if “All the Rules Must Change”), distinguishing him from those who have come to hear him hold forth. The point here is that self-presentational mode and performative “persona” are intentional constructions on anyone’s part; and certainly on that of a figure who is self-consciously living (and “playing”) the role of an artist who devises works said to be part of our own “everyday world” (though some cannot be acknowledged in this exhibition).

The second aspect of this presentation which seemed unusual was that as Irwin began to speak, rather than the slide-show of his own works which could not be seen in the show outside, or perhaps a discourse on some of its art historical roots which one might have expected, the artist gave the impression that his technical efforts had largely not succeeded. Irwin jokingly excused this gaffe (or was it an insiders’ gag?—“I’m sorry, we tried but it didn’t work.” Thus making it hard to tell if this was an intentional piece of “theater,” given the artist is known to be convinced his own artworks his own should not be viewed in photo- reproduction, since only the viewer’s “authentic” bodily experience of them reveals their true essence. What we were shown was: J.-L. David’s Coronation of Napoleon,1807 (essentially standing in there for most of nineteenth-century art); selections from Mondrian’s famous series of depictions of trees where the artist eventually evolves, at the turn-of-the-century, from Realism into a Theosophical portrayal of opposed positive-and-negative “forces” composing them; concluding this truncated synopsis of early Modernism was a Malevich square-abstraction, Irwin speaking of its illustrating spirituality trumping “content.”

That was it, with respect to images (excepting 30 paintings, sculptures and an installation making up the exhibition one had just viewed); no hoped-for shots of Irwin’s landscape art at the Getty or DIA Beacon, previous architectural works, nor photos or sketches of that piece just opened at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. The artist’s line, filling-in for such absences while coyly laughing, was “You’ll just have to believe me.”; but as they largely also were not documented even in the catalog, one did feel a real “void,” wondering if it was so intended. Instead of with images, Irwin mapped his artistic development using personal narrative and anecdotes (many of which were amusing and informative), beginning with his association with the now-legendary Ferus Gallery in LA (where he also “hung out with” friends including an honest Craig Collin, who said his first show of paintings there “sucked,” perhaps helping him start in the direction of a process-oriented and ultimately studio-rejecting evolution). But although Irwin is presented in this setting as if he “invented” such a progression (in which discrete art objects “dissolved” into “site-conditioned installations,” often instigated by others), this was a general trend at the time he worked in, in many senses and ways. We can look at one now-canonical interpretation, to give some idea of this.

For example, a famous charting of the several directions this “dissolution” took is critic Rosalind Krauss’ 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” There she characterized movements such as Minimal art’s greater involvement of the viewer’s participatory experience in “creating” a sculpture’s meaning; as well as viewed the Earth art of figures such as Robert Smithson’s and Douglas Heizer’s creation of a sculptural “object” with landscape to the point of its not really any longer constituting one, in any traditional sense; and finally (among others) the practitioners of Conceptual art’s (i.e. Robert Weiner) reduction of an essentially postulated or diagrammed formal structure to “exist” only as a set of written instructions or demonstrations. In all of these well-known phenomena—not to mention Performance art, where the “work” was no longer an object at all (though it may have involved usage of them), and takes place temporally over time, perhaps even only once—the resulting evolution in these various directions all involved what Irwin calls “breaking the frame,” producing “site-determined installations” not dissimilar to his own in impulse. Finally, certainly his West Coast “Space and Light” colleagues (best-known of whom might be James Turrell) were also following this general path in their own fashions, with artists re-conceiving themselves “as aestheticians in the world,” as Irwin’s lecture put it. Presenting his version of a larger trend as his “invention,” figured out by “taking things apart” in his own mind, seems to discount the impact of an artistic climate/moment he was operating within. For parallel with his trajectory, “all the rules” were indeed in the process of changing; such contextualization would not discount Irwin’s originality.

In his catalog essay “Robert Irwin and the Crux of Contemporary Art,” Matthew Simms does give putting the artist into a larger socio-cultural and artistic context a substantial try. Color Field painting (cf. Ad Reinhardt and Larry Poons) as well as the work of his California colleagues such as Billy Al Bengston and Craig Kauffman are referred to, not to mention Frank Stella’s contemporary if not earlier “breaking out of the frame” albeit in a different fashion with his famous “shaped canvases.” Somehow, even in the face of his almost monochromatic paintings with narrow horizontal strips that become less and less visible as Irwin proceeds, Minimalism as a general pictorial formal vocabulary as well as an artistic movement at that time which also focused on the viewer’s involvement via active visual experience gets pretty short shrift. (And granted, that the “lay person” might here wonder what artwork does not involve the viewer’s visual experience.) But we do hear about the crucial shows in which Irwin’s work was included that brought it into public view, and provided a curatorial/critical “handle” for taking serious notice of it: starting with William Seitz’ “The Responsive Eye” (1965), and the U.S. contribution to the Sao Paulo Bienial that same year; the well-known dealers, following Ferus Gallery’s Irving Blum, with Sidney Janis and then Pace Gallery, both high-profile in New York; plus significant critics such as Alan Solomon, John Coplans, Walter Hopps, Grace Glueck, Elizabeth Baker et al. Even in his case, art was a “game,” as he puts it, with winners and losers; his own fixation on controlling its outcome makes clear the activity was not “play.”

Is all of this counter-reaction on my part merely a result of disappointment, as a lecturer on Modern and Contemporary art, that Mr. Irwin did not take the wide-open opportunity of connecting his subsequent “real world” engagement with actual trees (in the context of those landscaping projects at famous museums) with the Mondrian series gradually reducing them to abstractions he had shown as slides in the beginning? Would that connection have indicated that his work’s trajectory had led him back to those initial “real” trees portrayed by the famous Dutch De Stijl artist (coming full circle); or instead even further in the direction of their “dissolution” into the positive-and-negative forces that turned them into abstractions subsequently? I bring all this information and my own observations up because: 1) I think they foreground what can only be called the “construction” of a major artist here, as a process involving both that creative individual’s strategies and prominent institutions’ agreement to participate in them; and 2) I feel there are many assumptions underlying such “collaboration” between these “players,” despite the artist himself having contradicted or verbally rejected many of them. The most significant of those in Irwin’s case, from my point of view, have to do on the one hand with his oft-mentioned “controlling” impulse with respect to how his work is interpreted and presented: involving his destruction of many of his papers and early works, as well as his own staff’s apparent involvement in installing this show. The other, lacking a better term, is the immense weight given to his philosophical perambulations: an interview video plus 19 catalog pages, all despite his stressing primacy of a viewer’s unmediated experience of his works.

For given what goes on all around us every day in the (un)“real world” right now, the same one Irwin sees himself participating in as aesthetic interventionist, can one any longer claim this ends up being other than hermetic escapism? Maybe it should simply now be viewed as a product of another historical era, like David is? Napoleon is long gone; but in the 70s was his role rather played by tthe Whitney, Pace Gallery, and the Jewish Museum? Is it not a contradiction of some kind to critique how museums operate: if your work up to 1970 is a “retrospective,” your landscaping happens to be done around prominent ones, and your scrims make minute changes in them only someone who frequents the buildings would notice?

III. Musings about Place: Evaluating Point of Origin’s Significance

“L.A. is a great big freeway. Put a hundred down and buy a car. In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star. Weeks turn into years. How quick they pass. And all the stars that never were, are parking cars and pumping gas.”

–excerpt from popular song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” lyrics written for Dionne Warwick by Burt Bacharach, released 1968.

What does it mean, or is it thought to mean, that visual art is made in a particular place? It seems assumed creative culture is linked to specific landscapes, social mores, traditions, the inspirational resources available, and even a kind of “local personality.” Within the framework of Modern and Contemporary art, one might think, in this country, for example of: John Marin and Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the Ashcan School and New York City, Chicago’s “Hairy Who” Imagists of the 1960s-70s, and the mature Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico (if she was born in Wisconsin, studying at Chicago’s SAIC and Art Students’ League in New York). Certainly from professional as well as personal experience, one “knows” there are differences: surely it would be difficult to imagine the “California Space and Light School” which Robert Irwin is thought of as a central figure within (more on that in a moment) emerging elsewhere geographically; and having traveled to California to teach, while I am an American by birth, CA did feel “alien” in many ways, reinforcing my existing sense of America’s pronounced “regionalism.” In his Demetrion Lecture last April 7 at the Hirshhorn (discussed in Section II above), the artist himself made reference to that locale’s specificity by means of contrast: born in Long Beach, Irwin did a stint in the military, subsequently spending some time in Paris, wondering at its beauty, art and architectural history. But ultimately he decided to return to Southern California, where he was from, because (as he put it) “there was nothing there”: seemingly implying an open sense of potential, uncluttered by an accumulated high-cultural past.

But while it may seem in some ways “empty” to those of us from elsewhere, I think this, to begin with, needs to be seen as a trope or construct: not only does California contain one of the two most important state university systems in the country (not to mention prominent private schools like Stanford and USC), as well as 17 art schools (5 of them top-ranked). In addition, I believe one must also take into account the considerable number of world-class museums located there, though some were perhaps not yet in existence when the artist returned from service abroad. But Irwin’s career has spanned more than 5 decades; so if not, certainly he has since become aware of their presence on the California arts landscape. Finally, there are commercial galleries, a plenitude even if only those in L.A. are taken into account—among the most famous from that period, along with Ferus,  Virginia Dwan’s, with an exhibition currently devoted to her at the National Gallery of Art in Washington—making even beginning a list impossible.

But if you are speaking of Southern California (the north and south of this state thinking of themselves as virtually separate countries, and indeed they are quite different), certainly there is enough “Light and Space” there to have fueled the movement which carries that name: a kind of art hovering somewhere between installation, Minimalism (i.e. Flavin), Op and Earth art, focused on creating an effect on the viewer using very subtle, often large-scale artistic means. Its early prominent participants, in addition to Irwin, included: James Turrell, Larry Bell, John McCracken and Craig Kauffman. This work was initially presented as constituting an emerging “phenomenon” at a UCLA exhibition “Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space” in 1971; some of it was influenced by a 1967 art-and-technology program initiated by the Los Angeles County Museum of art; some “Light and Space Art” was shown by European critic/curator Germano Celant at the Venice Biennale that same year; in 2010 David Zwirner Gallery, New York mounted a show entitled “Primary Atmospheres,” after a phrase used by critic Dave Hickey to characterize this particular kind of work. The most inclusive and significant survey of this loose and now still-growing group of artists, called “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface,” was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (2011). So apparently from relatively early on, not only were there colleagues with whom Irwin could feel artistic kinship and whose work could be drawn upon for ideas, but there were survey exhibitions as well as critical and curatorial “supporters” of its nature, characterizing the kind of investigations Irwin began to be involved in. Southern California was hardly a place in which “there was nothing there” to begin from artistically, then, really; although it can be granted this is a movement which did in fact begin from there.

But the reason I have been referring to this virtually mythical Southern California environment as a cultural trope here has to do with preconceptions about it (at least those dating from when Irwin began wrestling with Abstract Expressionism as an artistic heritage then current): that is, as a to some degree anti-intellectual, physical-outdoors-oriented lifestyle that involved pop music, cars and surfboards, swimming pools and TV. Black-and-white photographs in this exhibition’s catalog taken from periodicals and publications of that time reinforce the association of young Irwin with this culture (if sardonically): an illustration of him titled “A Painting Surfboarder” from LIFE magazine’s Oct. 10, 1962 article “Wide Open and Way Out” (where the painting he is also posing with has its back turned to the photographer, in keeping with his mantra that such works should not be reproduced). The other is of Irwin, smiling from the driver’s window of his “hot rod,” which we have learned from the catalog provided the technical means for executing or even influenced the artist’s conception of his round “shaped acrylic” works of the late 60s (as Irwin made use of “body shop” processes he knew of as they were used to shape and finish cars, with such vehicles a necessity in a sprawling (sub)urban LA setting defined by freeways). There was also a brief reference to “Zen” sensibility included in Irwin’s talk, when he was invited to lunch by an artist friend, who almost religiously unwrapped a raku-glazed bowl for him: its perfection said to have had an impact on his early 60s “Hand-Held Paintings.”

Ultimately, of course, to a large extent the distinction of this artistic movement as a specifically “California” phenomenon has to do, firstly, with its having developed in self-conscious contrast to the “New York School” Abstract Expressionism that had previously put that East Coast city “on the map” vis-à-vis its European roots and predecessors. It was, however, at least in Irwin’s case, critical recognition and his being included in significant group exhibitions in New York that advanced his artistic career, which changed gears (so to speak) when that occurred in the later 60s and 1970s. Secondly, there is in the work of many of its protagonists: an inclusion of “popular culture,” seeking of alternative forms of experience which might be linked to the contemporary use of mind-altering drugs and the practice of Eastern forms of physical training and mystical philosophy, and a general search for ways of living or orienting oneself societally alternative to those of immediately preceding decades, which many members of this show’s audience might not have difficulty thinking of California as the epitome of then.

But finally, third, there is a particular “anti-institutional” mode of thought which some may link to that part of the U.S. (as well as to the 1960s-70s generation along with which Robert Irwin began his artistic career); and I believe this aspect of part of what “California” means to a general public culturally is best spoken to or articulated in the videotaped interview with the artist dating from 1973, with which the Hirshhorn’s show concludes. In it Irwin has a number of things to say which seem important to his operating methods and artistic point of view, despite their landing somewhat problematically with a listener who has devoted much of their life to engagement with some of what he apparently deems passé or misinformed about present art institutional practice. Among the most significant of Irwin’s beliefs, as gathered from this taped interview, are as follows: he feels that Contemporary art cannot or should not be “taught” in the same sense that Art History is (although of course the question does present itself here as to what is to be done when such “Contemporary” art has itself become old enough to be part of “art history” now). That train of thought on his part specifically “takes out” the relevance of docents, as far as Irwin is concerned; however, one does then wonder what he conceives his own role as being in playing this if-virtual form of “docentry,” where he indeed is talking about the framework within which his art is intended to be understood. Going still further, Irwin asserts that the notion of art as a form of communication is fundamentally wrong: that is, he specifies, any understanding of an artist as someone having something specific and already-formulated to communicate to a projected viewer is false. Once again, one sees such a statement’s applicability to his own art’s goals. Yet thinking both about its validity when applied as a larger generalization to other, even Contemporary, artistic forms; as well as Irwin’s quite obvious need to “communicate” about his own verbally at considerable length (this taped interview, the afore-quoted 19-page “Notes for a Model” of 1977 as well as his lecture), it is hard not to see a contradiction. It is just that he himself has become “the docent.”

In conclusion, the final point Irwin raises in this taped interview that seems relevant has to do with museums: about which he is negative in that they have their rituals and each comes to have its own “history,” ostensibly interfering with or co-opting the art shown in them. Which seems an odd thing to say, though the artist admittedly articulated it some time ago in 1973, given the extent to which the Hirshhorn has evidently gone all out to accommodate Irwin’s requirements for this retrospective, the considerable publicity and educational support program they devoted to it. And where else would we be able to barely see a sly scrim installation, playing with Gordon Bunshaft’s 1974 building, inaugurated almost that very same year, except in a museum whose “history” plays against the square “white cube” tradition of exhibition spaces in the way this piece does? But it is one section of this interview tape which leaves me with an odd, but I think telling image I would like to share before ending my consideration of Irwin’s work as presented in this show. It is when he spoke with enthusiasm about space travel and ordinary commuters voyaging to Mars (as Amazon magnate Jeffrey Bezos apparently also did recently at a National Air and Space Museum event), summoning visions of (extra-planetary) site-conditioned installations even there.

Julia Bernard, Editorial Consultant
October 2016





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